Literary reputation is an unstable thing. Not so long ago, the luminaries were Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Mailer, but one hardly hears about them these days, unless one of their novels is adapted for the screen. Certainly Arthur Koestler, a much more profound thinker than his contemporary George Orwell, told the same story and in prose that is even better (and in a language not his own). But it is the latter whose books remain in print and whose name has become a byword for the political destruction of individual freedom and thought.
An instructive comparison is Orwell’s slightly older contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Despite major differences, they had in common spouses who faithfully shepherded publication of their works, thereby allowing their reputations to rise above the hot-button issues of their own time. (Koestler and Stefan Zweig suffer in this respect, as their wives committed suicide with them.) One can’t help thinking that some writers have outlived their reputation because no one remains to tend the flame. Thus, Orwell seems to tower over his age, whereas there were others in his cohort: Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Herbert Read, and such critics of authoritarianism as Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Theodor Adorno.
George Orwell has certainly been fortunate in his editors. First among them was Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s widow, who, with Ian Angus, published the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters in 1968. She was also successful, in accordance with Orwell’s own wishes, in keeping biographers at bay until 1980, thus preventing indiscriminate pilfering in the archives. (Koestler’s afterlife is a cautionary tale: His immense archive in Scotland remains, with one exception, untapped by serious scholars, which has resulted in at least one very tendentious biography and, recently, allegations of rape.) Peter Davison, professor and bibliographer, has worked for almost two decades producing the 20-volume complete works of Orwell and its supplement, The Lost Orwell, and, several years ago, George Orwell: Diaries. Now we have the one-volume Life in Letters.
The first thing that surprises, especially because of the fame of Orwell’s essays, is the lack of literary style: He was not a great letter writer. It is not the “literary” George Orwell who is on display here, but the active man in engagement with the world, the Orwell who “matters,” to use Christopher Hitchens’s term. Although most of us know the end of the story, the editor’s selection produces a built-in tension, and one reads with increasing dismay of the progress of his sickness and of the miscellaneous work he did to earn money but that kept him from worthwhile writing. With impressive professional discipline, however, and uncomplaining stoicism, he provided a perfect typescript of 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four, as per the English edition) while in bed suffering the final stages of tuberculosis.
It was said of Jonathan Swift, one of Orwell’s models, that “his personality is a problem which has not as yet disclosed the whole of his secret.” From the evidence of this “life in letters,” the same mystery does not apply to Orwell, who comes across as exceedingly straightforward and unsentimental. Indeed, it is the letters of Eileen Blair, Orwell’s first wife, included here that balance the life represented by the letters.
In the 1946 essay “Why I Write,” Orwell spelled out his goal: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” It was in pursuit of this goal that Orwell worked under appalling (to us moderns) conditions. Running water, bathrooms, electrical lighting—he seems not to have given much thought to them, as long as there was high tea at the end of the afternoon or “his ration of gin” in the evening. Jack Common, a working-class colleague from Orwell’s stint at the Adelphi, occupied the Orwells’ cottage in Hertfordshire for a time in the late 1930s. Apologizing for neglecting “several important items . . . that were chased out of my mind by the European situation,” Orwell warned Common not to use thick paper in the WC: “It sometimes chokes the cesspool up, with disastrous results. The best to use is Jeyes paper which is 6d a packet.”
Orwell was certainly not clairvoyant about coming events. In the same letter to Common, in 1938, he wrote: “I think now we’re in for a period of slow fascisation, the sort of Dollfuss-Schussnig Fascism which is what Chamberlain and Co would presumably introduce.” Like most English people, however, he was relieved that Neville Chamberlain had averted war. He had no doubt that war would come, but felt that time had been bought to prepare for it. What comes across here is his understanding of the effects of politics and politicians on ordinary people. One does not encounter the overused word “justice” in these letters; the refrain Orwell keeps returning to is one of decency and personal morality. His was not the airy-fairy vision of the university men—for instance, the Cambridge Five.
There are no letters about Orwell’s experience as a policeman in Burma in the early 1920s (portrayed in Burmese Days, 1934), which seems to have turned him against imperialism. Afterward, unlike men of his own class, he sought out a life among working people. The results were Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). By then he had morphed from Eric Blair, his birth name, into his famous nom de plume. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, he had made the conversion to socialism, although, ironically, it was his experience fighting the fascists in Spain that turned Orwell into an anti-Stalinist. When he went to Spain in 1936, it was by accident that he landed in a brigade of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), a partly Trotskyist socialist party. He was unaware that Moscow had already determined that POUM should be liquidated. Orwell and Eileen barely got out of Spain with their lives.
His anti-Stalinist Homage to Catalonia appeared in 1938, but its impact was blunted by the outbreak of World War II. By 1946, Joseph Stalin was at the height of his popularity in Western Europe, and Animal Farm experienced a publishing blackout. Despite today’s suppression of speech in the name of political correctness, one is still taken aback at the spectacle of left-wing intellectuals toeing the Moscow line. “Do the Bolsheviks have to be pigs?” asked one would-be publisher.
Anthony West, in a review of 1984 for the New Yorker, made a penetrating comparison with “Such, Such Were the Joys,” an autobiographical essay describing the sadism and oppression of Orwell’s pre-World War I prep school. In West’s view, Orwell simply channeled his schoolboy experience into the totalitarian horrors of 1984. Nevertheless, if elementary education has become more gentle, one can’t say that Orwell’s vision of the danger of the modern bureaucratic state, now increasingly international, is less relevant.
Alongside evidence of Orwell’s deep love of gardening and of his young son are many insights about contemporary political and literary figures. In particular, Orwell’s working-class correspondents bring to mind the historical strength of labor unionism in England. I recall in the 1950s, as a child of about 8, that something of this got through to me, in connection with reports of brutal labor strikes in the coal mines. My father was led to explain to me the difference between the American and the English laboring classes: If an American worker saw you driving a Cadillac, he worked to earn enough to buy one for himself; the English worker, on the other hand, sought to deprive you of yours. It was in this environment that George Orwell, despite his Eton education, came of age.
One wonders what he would make of today’s workers of the world. Orwell’s heart, however, was always with the left, and these letters don’t give the impression that he ever grappled with conservative thought as such. Ultimately, he seems to have been a man of no party, exemplified by what V. S. Pritchett wrote in his obituary of Orwell: “In one sense, he always made this impression of the passing traveler who meets one on the station, points out that one is waiting for the wrong train, and vanishes.”
To return to the earlier comparison with Virginia Woolf: Woolf, I believe, will continue to be relevant, at least so long as aesthetics, i.e., feeling, prevails in political thinking. Orwell, who never sat down to write with an “artistic purpose” in mind, was a purveyor of nonconformist opinion. As he wrote in his essay on Swift, “public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.” It is not simply because of his anti-Stalinism that we (especially conservatives) admire him, but because of his fearlessness in countering, as he wrote of Dickens, the “smelly little orthodoxies which are contending for our souls.”
As long as there is no “wintry conscience” of the present era, George Orwell will remain relevant.
Elizabeth Powers is the editor of Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea.